Several recent sleep studies have found that many of us are not getting the recommended amount of sleep required to recharge our bodies and our mental health. The reasons vary from money issues, especially with 20 percent of American workers receiving unemployment benefits, to the upcoming presidential election, which has both sides claiming America is doomed regardless of who wins.
“These are unprecedented times in America, the U.S. climate is incredibly unstable, and the divide between the left and right has never been higher than before,” researchers pointed out in the recent 2020 U.S. Presidential Election and American Citizens Health Characteristics study. “There simply seems to be no point of agreement with Republicans and Democrats. In these dark and unstable times, the problem is exacerbated by a lack of leadership.”
The first indication that Americans were struggling with sleepless nights occurred in February 2016 when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention initiated the first study to document healthy sleep duration for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. They found that more than a third of American adults were not getting the recommended sleep of 7 hours, which experts claim is needed on a regular basis. The findings were so startling that the CDC issued a statement:
“As a nation we are not getting enough sleep,” said Wayne Giles, the director of Division of Population Health. “Lifestyle changes such as going to be at the same time each night; rising at the same time each morning; and turning off or removing televisions, computers, mobile devices from the bedroom, can help people get the healthy sleep they need.”
But people don’t seem to be heading his advice.
Three years later, NPR dropped two reports regarding university-led sleep studies: one about Americans losing sleep over politics, which isn’t necessarily a new issue; and another about working Americans like nurses and police officers getting less sleep.
The first study was published in September 2019 in the journal PLOS ONE and discussed the negative sleep consequences from consuming too much political news. The lead researcher, Kevin Smith, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska, and his colleagues surveyed 800 people from a nationally representative sample. They asked a range of questions related to how respondents engage with politics. They found that 40 percent claimed politics caused stress in their lives while 20 percent reported being depressed, feeling fatigued, and losing sleep over it.
“What I felt was kind of eye-popping was simply the sheer numbers of people saying that they experienced this,” Smith said, according to the Sept. 25, 2019 NPR report.
The next study was conducted by researchers from Ball State University who analyzed data from the National Health Interview Survey. They discovered that self-reports of sleep duration among 150,000 adults working in different occupations had been worsening over an eight year period. According to the October 2019 report, researchers found that inadequate sleep — less than 7 hours — increased from 30.9 percent in 2010 to 35.6 percent in 2018.
Similar to the first study, stress was the culprit.
“If you are a police officer who just had a shooting encounter, it’s hard for the brain to feel rested, and if that state is not achieved, you don’t sleep,” Jagdish Khubchandani, a professor of health science at Ball State University and lead author of the study, told NPR in the October 28, 2019 report.
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About eight months later, Fox Business dropped a story that found 47 percent of Americans are losing sleep over money-related concerns due to the coronavirus pandemic. The organization behind the study — Bankrate — seemed to be using it to promote products from their partners. Those products relate to credit card and debt issues, which people are obviously experiencing with COVID-19 wiping out five years of economic growth.
Unlike the Ball State Study, Bankrate commissioned YouGov, a polling website used by Yahoo News, The Economist, CBS News and HuffPost, to conduct the survey. About 2,500 adults were surveyed, and field work was undertaken between June 3 – 5. Where the field work took place is unclear, as is the criteria they used for the adults taking the survey.
The 2020 U.S. Presidential Election and American Citizens Health Characteristics study found this trend of sleepless Americans continuing but affecting a larger majority, many of whom are concerned about the COVID-19 outbreak and the upcoming presidential election. Sleep Standards, an advertiser who sells foam mattresses for its business partners, conducted the study but didn’t promote any of their partners’ products in the breakdown of the study.
Researchers conducted the survey among a sample size of 1,137 people — 553 males, 580 females and 3 others — from around the country. About 43 percent were Democrats and 27 percent were Republicans while 27 percent supported independent candidates. Five different categories were analyzed, including sleep habits and health issues.
Their findings suggested that all 50 states have fallen below the 47 hours of weekly sleep needed for mental and physical health. Researchers also found that a majority of surveyed respondents (52 percent) were experiencing anxiety over the upcoming presidential election and were not eating healthy. Nearly 27 percent were arguing more and drinking more alcohol to cope with stress.
Researchers listed several contributing factors causing Americans to lose sleep. About 46 percent of respondents were worried about America’s future and its next president while 42 percent feared losing their job due to COVID-19. The recent violence related to the protests, both from protesters and police, resulted in 40 percent claiming they worried for their family’s safety and that COVID-19 would continue its high infection rate.
The recent sleep studies didn’t offer too many recommendations for people to follow. But, in late June, the American Medical Association did offer several steps healthcare professionals could follow if they are experiencing increased anxiety due to COVID-19, the protests, or the upcoming presidential election. It is also good advice for the average sleepless American to follow.
“During a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, it is common for everyone to experience increased levels of distress and anxiety, particularly as a result of social isolation,” the AMA pointed out on its website. “Use the strategies and resources on this page to manage your own mental well-being:
Take care of yourself
“Airline safety briefings remind us to put on our own oxygen mask before helping others in the event of an emergency. Attending to your mental health and psychosocial well-being is as important as managing your physical health.
- Feel free to feel your feelings
- Intentionally employ coping strategies
- Perform regular check-ins with yourself
- Take breaks from the news and social media
- Be fortified by remembering the importance and meaning of your work
Take care of your staff
“Leadership should strive to maintain critical infrastructure and have other support in place for staff during this time, knowing that this may require modifications to existing strategies, tactics and/or roles.
- Adjust staffing procedures and schedules (where possible)
- Offer access to psychosocial support
- Monitor and review staff member well-being
- Create an environment of open communication
For more information about AMA’s recommendations, please visit ama-assn.org/delivering-care/public-health/managing-mental-health-during-covid-19